We got this

sfp1I guess I’ve been doing an emergent series on the “super man” topic for a while, begun with Looking for a hero, a bit in Striking twice, some day, The true stalwart, and Super, thanks for asking. I’ve been reading Strong Female Protagonist, by Brennan Lee Mulligan and Molly Ostertag, for a long time, but in re-reading those listed posts, I realize that the travails of Alison Green are possibly the single most pointed commentary around.

(Yes, more so than Miracleman, at least to me. Sorry …)

It’s tough to write about SFP though. This post has gotta avoid getting enmeshed in current perceptions of the title and its comments community, to focus strictly on the text. Funny how that very problem seems endemic to the “super man” as hero … the degree of identification and over-interpretative perception involved is huge, as if the character on the page were instantly replaced with the reader’s projection, and therefore the dialogue becomes a matter of competing projections, to focus on what or who the character “is” outside of text (readers of the blog know I’m becoming a foe of that “is”), and to over-determine what any current storyline must be about, or should do, to remain faithful to the “is.”

But you see, there I go too, becoming over-invested in “what people are saying about it” and opening myself up to that same competitive/control dialogue. What’s this title, again, and what happens in it?

Alison Green is at the far end, perhaps the top end, of superhuman power in the first generation of “powers” in this particular fiction. There is no prior history of superheroics or villainy, and everyone so affected is relatively young. Throughout most of the world, people with such abilities more-or-less integrate into their societies; in the States, comics fandom or celebrity culture or both contributed to a more dramatic “secret identities” and “saving people” context. Alison is the one who called bullshit on it, revealed her identity, retired her ‘career’ as Mega Girl, and is trying to do good and be good in the world, with her powers.

The story makes no bones about the limitations of her views, some of which are front-and-center as the dramatic cores for each chapter, and some of which are there for observation, without preachy highlighting or direction of what the reader is supposed to agree with or to critique. The limitations come in two types: (i) her prior views and embedded experience as a public and very comic book-y superhero, which she actively seeks to deconstruct; and (ii) her cultural background from a financially-secure, well-adjusted, generally happy family. (I think the term these days is “privilege.”) In a lot of ways the former set is easier for her to think her way through and to try to resolve than the latter.

There’s a lot of weight in the stories, too much to summarize. Superficial reading would put her as the sunny and “whatever she just knows is right is right” Mary Sue heroine, but the actual plots and outcomes seem to me to say over and over, no, the comic-book context for “doing good” with your powers and mask is – if not wrong – definitely insufficient. And that again and again, going with her gut to say what’s right turns out to be more about her tendency to assume that, as Mega Girl (because she can’t and emphtically doesn’t just put her powers away), she can beat the situation into submission. The stories are all about the times when no, she can’t.

It’s easy to focus on her interaction with other super-powered people who’ve deconstructed their initial mask-and-reputation identities, like the uber-infamous supervillain who retired much like she did, the savage and rapid-healing bad-ass crime-fighter who figured out what helping people would really mean, and the former teammate who’s become a serial-killing vigilante. But I like to focus too on her ordinary-people interactions, in which – at least as I see it – she often gets jerked around by others’ simple presence and priorities as emotional, social human beings. Sometimes she finds a way through it, and other times she doesn’t.

I especially like the current story as of this writing, titled only “Chapter 6” and starting here. I’m even taking the risk of writing about a completely contemporary work because I have total faith in the creators to nail it hard (and probably in a way no one expects) based on every story to date. I’d appreciate it if you took the time to check it out, if you don’t follow this title already; you don’t need much if any knowledge of the prior stories to address what I’m talking about.

Basically, this story starts with her arriving at what she thinks is a working moral code, coming straight out of her family’s values and her intense desire for all humans to live together in a mutualistic community. (Alison is very much a “mean people suck” thinker, and that pretty much everything would work out if we all just settled down and were nice.) The code is, we got this. That if we pull together as we, if we address ourselves to it in good faith, then what to do, and how, will emerge and will bring us all to a better situation. For a bit there, it seems as if she’s found some ways to live this.

Until the past couple of weeks as of this writing, in her confrontation with a professor (she attends the New School) who, unlike a previous instructor who had quite malevolently (if understandably) attempted to use his position to humiliate her, is actually teaching her something important. Or might be; as I say, the storyline is current so who knows how this’ll go.

Readers’ view differ, to say the least, but my reading is that Alison is grossly unprepared to tackle anything like “what is my moral code” – in fact, frighteningly so, as to her, disagreements or even a proposed counter-view (as opposed to a held one) are very nearly direct and threatening attacks. There’s an earlier scene when a non-American teleporter appears for entirely innocent reasons, and she instantly attacks him, because “that’s what you do to teleporters, you have to disorient them.” When she discovers he’s not a villain bent on mayhem, just a guy who happens to be able to teleport and happens to be a close friend of the person she feels she’s the friend for here, she resents him. The situation here is similar – faced with an active-learning, off-balance teaching approach, she interprets it solely as humiliation – a power-struggle. Alison has deeply confounded starting as the designated hero with doing heroic things, and despite really, really trying to get her head on straight, has run face-first into this conundrum more often than she’s solved.

This is a big deal. It’s tied hard to the issues I’ve been working out, perhaps in a slight fog of my own, in the posts I’ve listed, because Superman, for example, is taken as given as doing good – and yet actually seeing that happen without (i) super-coincidence playing the primary role and (ii) no discernible problem beyond “bad guy! get’im!” in play is very hard to find.

Links: Strong Female Protagonist

Next: Scary heroes

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About Ron Edwards

Game author and publisher via Adept Press / Biology author and former professor

Posted on May 8, 2016, in Heroics and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 16 Comments.

  1. I’m quite taken with SFP–I don’t follow the fan-community or the comments–but I think it does a good job of unraveling the knot you’re talking about (how much good does Superman really do).

    Of course I just watched Iron Giant and I think it’s safe to say that the good Superman does is in *inspiring* people (we don’t really see a lot of that in the comics either–but I submit it’d be there). The Astro City take on Superman points out that while his life is an exhausting montage of one-save-after-another, when he does go on a date, it’s like he’s “a god pretending to be human.”

    He really *is* that good. Samaritan (their Superman) isn’t just superhumanly powerful–he’s superhumanly good good and moral too.

    I think that Superman’s approach to everything–his implacable optimism, his unbreakable strength of character, his always being the good-guy and the boy scout–and holding what seems to be a naive optimism in humanity–and being a nuclear grade power-house that makes it work?

    I think that’d do good just by being there.

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  2. Superman’s world isn’t the same as our world. He faces Real World(tm) problems like alien invasions, mad scientists and rocket propelled gorillas every week. We don’t have to deal with issues like those. That impacts on the philosophy.

    It’s like the famous challenge to Green Lantern: “I been readin’ about you… How you work for the blue skins, and how on a planet someplace you helped out the orange skins, and you done considerable for the purple skins! Only there’s skins you never bother with… the black skins! I want to know how come?! Answer me that, Mr. Green Lantern!”

    A valid question in the historic context of the comics industry – but complete hooey in the context of the story/universe. Obviously literary criticism (and creation influenced by this) needs to take on the (non-sarcastic) real world context, but the in-text argument isn’t irrelevant either. Opting solely for one or the other tends to generate nonsense.

    In other words, Superman’s world is a case of “bad guy! get’im!”. But I recall an interesting justification for this Back In The Day (I’d have to search for references), where Superman supposedly adopts a “humans will sort their own problems out” approach, with him only acting to prevent them from being destroyed first. That’s his “naive optimism in humanity” in action.

    In short, Superman’s moral code involves him *not* acting. He doesn’t rule. He doesn’t lead. He doesn’t provide any of that neat alien technology he knows about. But he helps, and protects. That makes him an establishment figure of a sort, but *not an obstacle to human progress*.

    Naturally I’m reading too much into the text, but it’s not an unsupported reading.

    And I kind of like it, and it would probably be my approach “if I was Superman”.

    Ahem: “No saviour from on high delivers
    No faith have we in prince or peer
    Our own right hand the chains must shiver…” 🙂

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  3. Another character with a “humans will sort their own stuff out” approach: Doctor Who. Much more explicit and consistent in his case.

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  4. I’m really happy to see you take on SFP, Ron! The current storyline — the class experiment wit the stones especially — completely fucked with my head, much like I think it fucked with Alison’s.

    As for linking SFP to Superman*, stories about characters whose primary goal is to “do the right thing” and to “help people” are definitely my jam, and I think often an extremely underrated genre. It’s writing off Supes as a “boy scout”, which is, no doubt, a common role in which he is cast by lesser writers.

    *Interestingly, SFP’s creators are not superhero comic readers. There’s a reference in one strip to Morrison’s “All-Star Superman”, and apparently it’s one of the few supers comics the author was aware of, yet hadn’t even read.

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  5. Santiago Verón

    I think I would like to have a classification of heroes. I think characters like Goku, Power Rangers,Sailor Moon, the Ninja Turtles, and to some extent Buffy, they “come with” their own villains or sources of villains. If I’m not mistaken, there’s a storyline where Leonardo is absent, Raphael goes out to stop robbers like a vigilante, and Master Splinter scolds him, telling him they’re only supposed to fight mutants, robots, other ninjas or something like that.

    I always thought it was a Japanese thing, because they don’t do shared universe, open ended hero stories like Americans. I always thought Japanese heroes were more connected to their villains, but now I’m reading this blog about the importance of the villain in the American superhero comics, so I dunno.

    I’m thinking about all of this because of the “how much must Superman interfere” thing. Ha, I think this could also be related to the previous comments about social inclusion. Superman wondering about how does he want to involve or include himself with the rest of society.

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  6. Just caught up with SFP. Thanks for introducing me to it. I still stand by my previous posts.

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    • I’m glad you liked it. It’s a lot deeper than many stereotypes that could be inferred from misreading its title.

      I am confused by your phrasing to “stand by” your comments here. I did not read them as a challenge nor have I seen anyone attack them, i.e., that they needed defending by you.

      If you haven’t seen it, then my earlier post Super, thanks for asking seems more like the topic you were addressing in your first comment. It should also clarify that “who Superman is”:explanations aren’t what I’m presenting or seeking, although non-argumentative “to me” versions are certainly welcome.

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      • What I meant was that my comments were made prior to reading SFP, but now that I have, I still think they are valid.

        My Superman comments were aimed at your concluding paragraph, which, yes, you do go into in more depth in the other post. But I’m reluctant to comment on older posts, especially since I’m prone to wander off on tangents.

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  7. Oh dear. Superman is our super-parent, meant to protect us until we grow up.

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  8. Ron,

    As I read it here (I have read some SFP generally, very non-exhaustively), the issue is not so much her difficulties regarding “what IS my moral code?” (your “we got this” is a clear statement, and seems a fair summary). Rather, the problem is in working through the implications/consequences of that code, and the result of conflicts with it.

    I might tie this to the Superperson issue generally by saying that a simple moral code LOOKS like the best/only solution to the inherent problems of an Uberbeing. Without it, the Supes could easily be unbeatable villains and/or not really human-type people at all. Superman is doing good simply by not becoming villainous and remaining human. This (potentially) remains an interesting dilemma for us readers because, while we are not Super, we do have moments when we can wield power (over others, especially), and – for that moment, at least – face the same implicit, omnipresent villainy/inhumanity issue.

    But what I see the teacher story illuminating is less the humiliation/power struggle angle than the real-world (and real human) complications. Along with a bit of everyone-sees-your-egotism-but-you. After all, even if “we got this”, what does it take to get us to, you know, actually go and get it? If “next time [she’ll] be ready” – ready to do WHAT? Clearly, superpowers and knowing that “everyone should pick black” is the right answer is insufficient …

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    • I agree. I didn’t say she was dealing with bullying; in fact, I said the opposite. That she is wrong to interpret Prof. Gurwara’s classroom style and this exercise specifically as anything negative at all. She may not like it, but that doesn’t mean it’s the gratuitous bullying that she says it is. Alison literally doesn’t know the difference between dislike of something she is obliged to put up with (based on current social role), vs. something she can condemn. She thinks the prof is trying to prove her axiom is wrong, which is her intellectual error, and she takes it one step farther by further interpreting it as attacking her, which is her social error. She really does think that she already just knows these things, confusing her reactions for her values. I didn’t go into it in the post, but I submit this has a lot to do with her ethnic, economic, and regional background, and perhaps her generational context too.

      All of which should be read as well as my highest regard for the writing and art – that panel I clipped for the lead image is a masterpiece.

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      • At the risk of stumbling over each other in fundamental-agreement-with-quibbles … I agree too, and probably should have been clear that her false sense of power struggle IS there, I just wouldn’t want to focus on it as, you know, APPROPRIATE and IMPORTANT. On the other hand, you point out the way it IS important – which I didn’t mean to ignore, but maybe rushed past more than I should have.

        I *am* looking forward to what’s next!

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  9. As seems to be my habit, I stumbled into this discussion a bit late… It’s less explicitly focused on the ‘super’ thing, but on the topic of deceptively simple-looking webcomics with art that grows on ya, I guess the caped vigilante crops up now and then in Dumbing of Age?

    http://www.dumbingofage.com/2016/comic/book-6/03-when-god-closes-the-door/linger/

    Liked by 1 person

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